Monday, April 03, 2006

Reflections on the Rubber Chicken Circuit

If you read enough political commentary, you will occasionally come across lines like: "After six months on the rubber chicken circuit, Bob Rae surrendered to the inevitable today and abandoned his bid for the Liberal Party leadership." And if you do a quick google search, you will find any number of definitions of the phrase "the rubber chicken circuit". The best one, to my mind, is: "The endless series of public dinners and luncheons politicians must attend to raise funds and make speeches."

But what exactly is the genesis of the term? Why is the rubber chicken circuit the rubber chicken circuit? For many years I had highly eccentric and factually incorrect notions about this matter, which I would now like to share with you.

I'd heard the term "rubber chicken circuit" on and off over the years on CBC and PBS political shows. I had never really thought much about it, until one night I was watching a Brit-com during which an English politician gave a speech. The speech was received very poorly and, about a minute into it, he was pelted with a rubber chicken.

At around the same time, I began to watch the Royal Canadian Air Farce, where occasionally the Air Farcers would fire the chicken cannon at whatever celebrity or politician had most annoyed them during the past seven days. And the last ingredient loaded into the chicken cannon was always a rubber chicken.

Slowly, an idea as to the meaning of the term began to take shape in my mind.

But this idea was not firmly cemented until my university years, when I would visit a one room club in Victoria, British Columbia called "The Other Place". On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it hosted an open stage Blues Night, on Wednesdays an open mike Poetry Slam. These events ranged from okay to horrible (more on that in a minute), but the beers were a dollar a bottle and you could purchase a BIG bowl of salted peanuts for another fifty cents. I used to go there all the time after I moved out of my parents place; it was dinner for me, three times a week.

And there was a man there, a mystery man because I never knew his name or even for sure which one of the regular patrons he was, that used to hurl rubber chickens at the performers as a gesture of disapproval. If the chicken hurler plonked some sap playing shitty guitar, that could make the whole evening worthwhile.

Now, The Other Place was a single large square room under Fernwood Community Center. In fact it was owned by Fernwood Community Center, which is why they could sell beer but had to close up by 11 pm. Because of the cheap prices, it attracted both city-wide music fans and the local element, and on some nights there might be 150 people in the place. One of the other regulars was a Beardy Boy who wore thick glasses and rode around in a wheel-chair with a red blanket across his lap. He was a first generation IT guy from the sixties. His beard was always stained with last weeks' meals, and a big gut stuck out from under an over-sized, similarly stained t-shirt. Though there was supposed to be no floor service, Beardy Boy could whistle so loud that you could hear it over the music, and he would keep doing it until the bartender brought him beer and peanuts. He had been coming to The Other Place forever, so the staff knew him; nobody else ever got that kind of service.

This was who I suspected was the rubber chicken man.

As a matter of fact, though, I never actually saw him throw a rubber chicken, and neither to my knowledge did anyone else. You might have a couple of guys on stage trying desperately to bash out some twelve bar blues, and suddenly you would see a whitish, airborne object following a parabolic trajectory and pop! the "singer" would be staggering around wondering what hit him. It would be, of course, a rubber chicken. But there was never any moment during which you observed the chicken actually in or leaving Beardy Boy's grasp. Maybe he had a compact chicken cannon of his own in that wheel-chair. I never found out.

I especially remember one Wednesday night during an open mike poetry slam (which I attended solely for the cheap drinks, believe me), where a feminist chick was reading a poem entitled something like "A Song to My Vagina" (this was the 80s) and took a sharply flung chicken to the head. Her glasses fell off, and she spent a couple of minutes crawling around on stage trying to find them, and a couple more minutes collecting the scattered pages of her "song".

When she finally got to her feet this girl was livid. She began prowling the crowd waving the rubber chicken, asking "Was it you?" over and over. And she must have sensed something, because it didn't her long to focus in on Beardy Boy. "Was it you?" She waved the chicken over his head. At first Beardy Boy shrugged in the negative (he never seemed to speak), but as the girl persisted he kind of tilted his head forward until his face was almost submerged in his own facial hair. The girl snatched at his ever-present red blanket, but he held it close to his knees, and at this violation signaled the staffers with a quick whistle.

"He's hiding them in that chair!" said FemiNazi as the bouncer closed in.

"You can't touch him like that," the bouncer replied.

"He could hurt someone with those things!"

Beardy Boy remained submerged.

"With what things? I don't see anything?"

"Search him!"

"I'm not going to harass a cripple!"

And so the bouncer also took a rubber chicken to the forehead, and our poetess stormed out of the Other Place in a huff. The only thing you could see of Beardy Boy's face at the moment were his eyes, which twinkled as merrily as Santa Claus'.

"Be careful, Norman," I thought I heard the bouncer say, and he dropped the rubber chicken on the floor next to Beardy Boy's wheelchair.

Beardy Boy did not speak, just kept his eyes on the stage and watched as the next would-be poet approached the microphone. This one was not so bad, and I found myself listening closely. When I looked at the floor again, the rubber chicken was gone, and Beardy Boy had not moved.

So, in short, for a long time I came to believe that the "rubber chicken circuit" was a kind of cut rate speaking circuit where poor performances were rewarded by a rain of rubber chickens.

But the story doesn't end here, because as it turns out, I was completely wrong about origin of the term. In fact the circuit acquired its monicker through entirely different mechanisms.
Firstly, why is it the rubber chicken circuit? Well, at one of these endless paid political events the deal is that the paying audience gets a speech, a hand-shake, and a meal. Since the audience Members may be of different races and religions, the chef's dilemma is to cook something that does not run afoul with any of their cultural or religious food prohibitions. Chicken, it turns out, is one of the few dishes that everyone on the planet is allowed to eat.
Secondly, why is it the rubber chicken circuit? Well, at any large gathering, it is much easier to cook the food well beforehand and reheat it just before meal-time, which procedure often gives chicken a rubbery texture. And the same thing applies no matter how high-class the event is supposed to be. Former white-house chef Walter Scheib the 3rd once complained that his most pressing problem when he worked for President George W. Bush was not having all of his big occasion meals turn into just another stop on the rubber chicken circuit.
Incidentally, Walter Scheib was fired by Laura Bush because he could not meet the stylistic requirements of the Bush household. On many occasions he was asked to cook dinners using foodstuffs produced entirely by donors to the Bush campaign. For example, "Coca-Cola brined Pilgrim's Pride turkey with Dunkin Donuts old-fashioned cake doughnut sweet and savory stuffing".
For this and other Scheib recipes from his time with George W, visit:

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